What Sank Dongtan?

Jan 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Uncategorized

A revolution in green city design or a modern-day Shangri-La?

dongtan waterfront rendering

On this increasingly urban planet, it’s becoming clear that the solutions to our problems will come from our cities. But what happens when it is our cities themselves that are creating most of these problems?

The emergence of the ecocity concept has been one of the most exciting trends in city design in recent years – intelligently designed ecological cities that would revolutionize the way we thought about the environments in which we dwell. As the idea gained traction and exposure over the past few years, a string of ambitious ecocity projects were announced to create new ecocities from scratch.

One of the most famous, and perhaps the most ambitious, was Dongtan. Created by prominent design and engineering firm Arup, the city was supposed to set the standard for building cities that harmonized with their surroundings and respected their inhabitants, present and future.

The Idea: A Green Island off Shanghai

China is experiencing a massive migration from the countryside to cities; one projection sees 5 million new buildings being built in China over the next 20 years. With such an explosion of development on the horizon, some designers saw an opportunity to shape a sustainable design revolution from the ground up. Dongtan, a low-carbon city, carfree city on Chongming Island just off Shanghai, was supposed to be the opening shot of the revolution.

Here is how Arup described it back in 2005:

“Dongtan will produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste. Clean technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells will power public transport. A network of cycle and footpaths will help the city achieve close to zero vehicle emissions. Farmland within the Dongtan site will use organic farming methods to grow food.”

The plan fired the imaginations of development professionals and journalists alike. In 2007, Wired Magazine wrote a glowing account of this “great green leap forward” in China, discussing in depth the technical and political challenges facing the designers. The piece concluded optimistically:

“If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across China and the rest of the developing world — cities that, given new tools, might leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with economic progress… Even old American and European cities may find bits and pieces of Dongtan that they can use, especially when they redevelop industrial plots or build out at the edges.”

Smoke and Mirrors?


It wasn’t long before a few skeptical voices joined the discussion. In 2007, Ethical Corporation, a website on responsible business practices, came out against Dongtan. Calling it a Potemkin village (a reference to a Russian story about fake villages erected to impress the Empress Catherine II) and “a masterpiece of greenwashing,” Ethical Corporation claimed that Dongtan was never intended to become a reality.

Rather, as a mythical green Shangri-La, Dongtan would serve China as the ultimate greenwashing tool, greening the country’s image abroad while in practice allowing its cities to continue to develop unsustainably at breakneck speed. The contractors and designers involved in the project, according to this theory, had nothing to lose by cooperating, and invaluable connections in the Chinese government to gain.

No Progress on the Ground

In late 2008, a couple of well-known newspapers sent reporters over to Chongming Island to get an impression of how Dongtan was taking shape on the ground. The resulting articles pronounced the project a “pipe dream” and a mere “gleam in the eye.” One Chinese farmer, whose fields lie within the borders of the planned building site, told the UK’s Telegraph that he had never heard of the project.


As it turns out, the plans for Dongtan began to falter in 2006, when Shanghai’s former mayor Chen Liangyu – Dongtan’s most enthusiastic supporter – was arrested for “property-related fraud.” In the wake of the scandal, China’s Communist Party reorganized the city’s leadership and planning structure, leaving Dongtan orphaned.

Since then, the project’s permits have lapsed, and the global economic crash has brought construction projects worldwide to a standstill. Back on Chongming Island, a number of high-rise apartment buildings have gone up, but not in the area earmarked for Dongtan. Despite the fact that these buildings contain no discernible green elements, their developers, in a blatant attempt to take advantage of Dongtan’s hype, are marketing them as green buildings.

Knowledge Transfer

With actual implementation of the project nowhere on the horizon, Dongtan has been recast as a valuable contribution to the global discussion about ecocity design, a “knowledge transfer” in the words of one project manager.

In a 2008 interview for TreeHugger, Arup’s Director for Global Foresight and Innovation Chris Luebkeman told me:

“It’s not a matter of this or that project compensating for all future change – every little bit has to help. What we are trying to do with projects like Dongtan, and ecocity projects elsewhere, is to continually raise the bar.”

Dongtan’s plan and concepts have in fact raised the bar in the theoretical discourse about ecocity planning, and have influenced plans for other new eco-developments that are currently being built. Just by existing in its paper form, Dongtan has a lot to teach the world about the art and science of planning green cities.

However, if Dongtan’s fate is to serve as a strictly conceptual model, perhaps its designers should consider making more of its planning documents public, so that future cities can benefit from the enormous amount of thought that went into this unbuilt city.

This post was originally published on TreeHugger.com on January 5, 2009. Dongtan renderings by Ove Arup and Partners, via The Christian Science Monitor and Wired.

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  1. It’s a pity that the project is stopped and all references to it was held from the website of Shanghai World Expo in 2010. The critics, such as China Digital Times claim that such projects are “designed by big-name foreign architectural and engineering firms who plunged into the projects with little understanding of Chinese politics, culture, and economics — and with little feel for the needs of local residents whom the utopian communities were designed to serve”.

  2. […] some of the big plans for new ecological cities elsewhere in the world have faltered of late, work on Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City is well underway and plowing ahead at full speed. A small […]

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